Begin with a zero dark thirty alarm clock buzzer, throw in an eleven hour drive across five states, with a continual flow of caffeinated beverages, and Nascar like fuel stops, and you have just participated in the trek north for the opening of waterfowl season. Let’s not forget the static of radio when the search feature fails to find anything remotely musical to listen to… At least I had some beautiful scenery to view as the miles clicked off on the odometer. Amazingly the alternating snoozes of both my canine and human co-riders had not driven me crazy, and arrival in North Dakota was effortless and safe.
It had been two years since my last Dakota adventure, but my dog Vito and I yearned to hit the potholes for some early season ducks. Somehow I coherced my brother Jack to come along to enjoy a few North Dakota sunrises and hopefully a few laughs!
Typically I prefer to arrive the day prior to the season opener. Since I would rather not eat then to hunt a spot “blind”, we arrived in early afternoon to settle into the farm. Once the gear was stowed, I broke out the ever present Alpen binoculars, maps, and notebook paper, and eased on down the closest gravel road.
I am always reminded I am in Dakota territory when I witness the unique boulder piles in field after field. Harvested from the soil by generation after generation of farmer, the piles continue to improve.
One thing I noticed right away, was the lack of water in some of our previously productive potholes. In fact, a dozen or more ‘holes were non existent! Likewise the corn and soybeans showed the strain of the summer’s drought. What should have been six foot tall corn was in some cases equal to the height of neighboring soybeans. Well, one makes due with what the Lord gives us, and I was not about to turn around!
Fortunately I knew the lay of the land and began to run a circuit of the “better” potholes. Most held a few ducks but none where what I would call a solid spot from which to start the season. Toward dusk, I wheeled the truck over a couple ridges, through a pasture and into a hidden gully, with a hidden pond at the bottom. Upon close inspection I could observe a few dozen puddle ducks mixed in with another fifteen or so divers. Throw in an obnoxious gathering of coots and we had yourselves a starting point for the next day.
The first morning of the season always brings with it a bitter sweet mood. Unpolished and unpracticed I stumble around, looking for this or that and finally gathering up all that is needed before climbing into waders for the first of many early morning hikes. None the less, the dog is rearing to go and he seems to know this is the real deal. Once we locate the two solo cottonwood trees, the decoy fleet is launched and the blinds set up. A slight breeze puts some ripple on the water’s surface and anticipation is high for the first flight!
Needless to say a few hours later, we have seen not one feathered creature. Things were not looking good for the Kansas team. Since we had not heard any gun shots, we knew that competition was not the issue. A quick walk along the eastern shore revealed the inhabitants had simply vanished from the previous eve.
I pondered the reason as to why there were no birds as we packed up. Possibly it was a PM local, or it was some sort of fluke; either way it was onward and (hopefully) upwards from here!
A quick retreat to another trusty spot, allowed us to salvage the morning. We were fortunate to bag a few mix species there and end the first dawn on a promising note. A quick bite of lunch and it was back on the trail of what I hoped would be bigger and better times this evening.
In my dictionary of hunting terms, alongside “sure thing”, sits an illustration of a small pasture slough. The kind that has two foot of bare mud bank, punctated by some reeds or knee high smart weed on the bank and some sort of aquatic lettuce in the water. As I crested the ridge, I spotted just that scene. At once, I knew where the afternoon would find me! Of course the thirty or so ducks that we splashing in the water didn’t hurt either.
Once the plastic imitations were tossed out and the blinds hidden well, all that was left was the wait. During the course of my first peanut butter and jelly sandwich of the season, I ran through all the scenarios of the morning and prayed they didn’t occur this afternoon. A whimper from Vito, shook the sleep from eyes, and I peered out front to see the subtle silhouettes of a pair of teal. Not wanting to ruin the moment, I EASED from my layout blind and snapped a shot at the closest duck. Like all best laid plans, this one required a second effort and fortunately that shot connected. I don’t know who was happier, me or Vito! The scene repeated itself again and again until I had finished my daily limit with Teal.
When presented with opportunity it seems that hard work often pays off. Staying optimistic and putting in the effort paid off handsomely with a day one limit. That made dinner as well as a couple libations taste that much sweeter! All that was left was to do it over again.
Day two dawned exactly the same as the opener. Comfortable forty eight degrees with a southwest wind. Exactly what is not preferred for a hunt at dawn. I had located what appeared to be a great loafing hole on the west side of figure eight shaped pothole. The issue was the “sweet spot” was on the west side and we would be facing the rising sun. As imagined, the ducks arrived from the east, dropping in quietly and just as easily departing as the sun illuminated us standing in the reeds straining to get off a shot. Scratch another morning off to bad luck. To make matters worse, we fared no better with duck in the afternoon; succeeding only with mosquitos and doing very well with them!
The next day found me breaking a rule I knew better to do in early season… Hunting the same hole twice! Reasoning that setting up on the east side of that “sweet spot” and loading it with decoys and robo ducks, would somehow persuade them to over look where they really wanted to be. As you can imagine, the ducks did what ducks do. They deferred back to their original spot, landing just out of gun range – west of us.
Lunchtime found me once again traveling the dusty back roads in search of hope and ducks. A kind farmer’s wife felt some pity for me when I asked about hunting the pond near their homestead. Once more, high hopes set in and things were looking brighter. The afternoon found me trying to choose between the corner where a couple dozen teal had been and the adjacent corner where the bigger ducks had been.
I felt splitting the difference and picking the west ground which also gave me the better concealment would be best. This would position me more favorable for teal but also ensure that no stray shot would enter the barnyard. Unfortunately the short grass did not allow for the use of my dog blind. My partner would just have to lay alongside me in the fescue.
No time at all found us being buzzed by little Teal rocket ships. A salvo of Fiocchi steel was launched and somehow the squadron of teal escaped unharmed. Reloading my shotgun, I attempted to laugh it off and prepare for the next assault. This time my buddy could stand for no more of my poor shooting. Upon arrival of the next batch of teal, he sprung from his lare apparently in an effort to snare a duck himself, taking me out of the equation. Once more a failed scenario.
Finally we began to get on track with the next pair of teal. One shot one bird to hand. Then Murphy arrived in full force. Mallards and gadwall began to land just seventy yards away, splashing happily as if they knew I could offer them no harm. At that point, things went from bad to worse. The steady south west wind disappeared allowing the ducks to do what they wanted and tough down wherever they wished and it was not in the proximity of my spread. Although the ducks avoided us, the same was not true of the flocks of mosquitos and biting flies! Shooting time found us attempting to fire upon swarms of insects.
That evening I drown my sorrows and tried to envision a better plan of attack. Recalling from memory a section miles east that I had previously scouted and seen good bird population; a course of action was set to engage some ducks there the next morning.
Once more we arose to a southwest breeze. Tired on continuing facing into the rising sun, we decided to set up on the northwest face of the impoundment thereby effectively catching any ducks in a crossing pattern and reducing the glare on us. At first light we encountered steady movement and managed a few ducks as well as a bonus goose from Canada before things slowed up.
Immediately upon packing up, I began my scouting ritual. Traveling a mile or so west through the rugged and rocky pasture I located a few more potholes many of them littered with loafing waterfowl. Since I had some birds remaining in my daily limit of six and had only canine companion for the remainder of the day , I set up on a likely little spot.
Similar in appearance to a cereal bowl, this little pond sat way up on top of a ridge carved out by some glacier years ago. No livestock were in the area, but their presecence was obvious as the vegetation was merely ankle tall. Once I set my decoy spread and blind, I expended an hour or more time “brushing” my hide with grasses from the area to allow it to properly blend in. Once that was done, man and beast settled in for a nap.
I was awakened by the chirping calls of passing Sandhill Cranes. Dozens were passing over head within a football field or two of our position. Even with the stout head wind they made good progress and their calls could be heard from a great distance! What a sight to behold. SHortly thereafter the geese began to travel, yet none close enough for a shot.
Lastly, the ducks began to get skyward. One by one and then later more and more took to the blue bird sky, some approaching dangerously close. Finally a single teal dropped in perfectly for a shot and once downed it gave Vito a nice retrieve. Minutes later another little teal visited us and once more Vito got to go swimming. Although I couldn’t dare be picky, I hoped for some additional flavor other than just teal. Minutes later I was rewarded with a gray (Gadwall) for the bag. One duck remained for a limit. Approximately a half hour later, an immature Mallard drake drifted into the decoys and was met with the force of Fiocchi. As I unloaded and watched Vito proudly swim back with his prize, I silently gave thanks for such a glorious day !
A mild celebration occurred that night after which plans were hatched for the next day’s hunt. Serious weather was threatening the region soon so we decided to hunt that day and call it good. I had located a suitable spot just past the afternoon’s little pond that also held a variety of ducks.
It was there we arrived that last morning still in hours of darkness. Upon exit from the truck, I began to glance around. The lack of vegetation once more meant little cover in which to hide, but alas the ground was covered with duck feathers and excrement! It looked very promising.
Since this would be our last hoorah we employed every decoy and trick in our arsenal. The few goose decoys we had were tossed out as well as both our spinning wing decoys. Much effort was again placed into concealment and with the wind finally from the east, things were beginning to look up.
As I parked the truck and walked back I felt the wind at my back and with minutes to legal shooting time, I began to get anxious. The forecast was for a steady ten mile an hour southeast wind, yet a mere twenty percent chance of rain existed. Even after legal shooting time it remained incredibly dark, more so than should be expected on a “partly cloudy” day. One must hunt the conditions and that is what we did. Apparently rust had set in over the off season, as my shooting and that of my brother had deteriorated. Several ducks flew away unscathed until we began to get into a groove. As one duck then another was downed and retrieved, I thought I felt a sprinkle or two.
Once more change had set in for the worst. Suddenly a steady wind just filter to nothing and a light mist fell upon us. I was thankful for my every present Drake waterproof shirt that kept me comfy. Maybe it was the lack of wind or possibly the cloudy skies but nary a duck seemed impressed with our spread once the rain came. Suddenly we were leppers, outcasts in the waterfowl world. To say it was crazy would be an understatement.
I was becoming concerned about our departure, since we were literally miles from a suitable roadway or house and had to cross a good portion of bare earth and low lying land. Fortunately a couple marauding Gadwalls came close enough for shots and with a half dozen ducks between us we called the hunt. Quickly we gathered our gear and tossed it into the truck in hopes of safely making it to the gravel road.
story and photos by Tom Cannon